With a rejected pitch in LA last year, wildly escalating costs, and a filming schedule busier and more strenuous than anything a UK YouTube project has ever attempted before, Project: Library is the showpiece of talented young filmmakers that's been long overdue. I was lucky enough to be on set as an extra for one night of shooting.
"There may be a dead body in here," he says and closes the door as he leaves. I am stood in a small room piled with boxes, broken furniture, and about thirty or forty flies circling around my head - the notion that something may be dead in here suddenly begins to seem plausible.
I take my white shirt and black trousers out of my bag, change, and hurry out of the cupboard-sized space. As I walk down the stairs, the scene is very different from when I was led up by the Assistant Director only a short time ago: the cameras are now set up, the lighting blinding, there are people with clipboards and a small army of helpers. This is a film set and I am an extra in something the UK YouTube creative scene has never attempted before.
Project: Library is certainly not your average YouTube production. Set in the fictional Battersham Library, two employees, Will (Tim Hautekiet) and Steve (Jack Howard), are faced with the desperate task of saving their employers from bankruptcy by tracking down the biggest overdue book fine anyone has ever accumulated. "Look, there's no easy way of saying this," Steve tells Michael Foster (Daniel J Layton) when the library identify him as the loaner in Episode 1, "but you owe us a million pounds."
It would be difficult for Project: Library to have been created under more secrecy than it has been. When it began two years ago it was just an idea between two friends, Mike Cannon and Tim Hautekiet, and yet as time went on and people started to get involved, keeping quiet became very important. "Living in the age of online over-sharing, keeping it all under wraps was difficult," Sammy Paul, Assistant Director tells me when I ask about the strains of secrecy. "I kept finding myself thinking 'this would make such a cool tweet'. But any time I came near to caving in, I'd just remind myself of the impact the series could have if it seemingly came out of nowhere."
(Photo by Katt Wade - From left: Daniel J Layton, Tim Hautekiet, Jack Howard)
When the first episode was released on 10th October, it went international. Social networking sites ablaze, Ben Cook - co-writer and co-producer on the project - tweeted, "#ProjectLibrary is now trending WORLDWIDE! Keep going, guys. Next stop, THE UNIVERSE" and the reality of what had been achieved hit home for all involved, yet again. I asked Mike Cannon, half of the writing duo that birthed Project: Library, how it felt to see the idea take off so explosively. "It was like raising a little dog," he says, "then letting it go and it coming back six months later driving a Ferrari."
Making a feature-length, British-based film isn't an everyday occurrence, and there is no argument that it has already changed the landscape of YouTube in the UK, but is it enough? "We just need more companies and sponsors to realise that this is something worth investing in," Jack Howard tells me. "I think that the mainstream media (whatever that is) is starting to catch up with YouTube and realise the amount of potential, audience and talent that is involved." When I ask Ben if the growing attention given to YouTube productions is from a change in society or a change in the quality of videos made, he comments, "Some people [...] still think YouTube is awash with babies and cats, and they're right, but also some of the most intelligent and creative entertainers in the world right now are YouTubers. When broader society realises that, it'll blow its mind."
Dan Howell and Phil Lester, legends of the Vlog format on YouTube, were picked up by BBC Radio One this year to present a show together and yet still continue to work on their YouTube channels - but is this a showing of artistic integrity, or a homage to the stepping stone that gets internet video stars onto TV and radio? "I could see [YouTube] becoming a genuine online equivalent to the film business," remarks Tim, but acknowledges that "YouTubers tend to go both ways. Some decide they want to build their careers entirely on YouTube, getting their income from the ad revenue and from merchandising. Whilst others still choose to use the site as an online portfolio/showreel that then gets them noticed by more traditional outlets. I think there's room for both."
As the sun goes down over Bethnal Green Library, Mitchell Mullen (above) walks on set and the room fills with applause. A professional actor whose latest roles in RED 2, About Time, and Filth, place him as the acting veteran on set, his portrayal of the foreboding Troy, manager of Battersham Library, is a testament to the quality and expertise that Project: Library has attracted. With doors locked shut, multiple bottles of water being consumed, and a tangible energy of excitement in the air, quiet on set.
Action! calls Tim and the night time shoot, that won't stop until 6am the following morning, has begun.
Episodes come out every Thursday on Tim Hautekiet's channel.
You can watch the first episode here: